Lords Defeat May Again on Brexit, This Time Over Rights

(Bloomberg) -- The U.K.’s upper house voted against Prime Minister Theresa May on a key piece of Brexit legislation for the third time in a week, further complicating her plans for Britain’s departure from the European Union.

The House of Lords voted 316 to 245 on Monday in favor of an amendment to the government’s so-called European Union (Withdrawal) Bill that would ensure the bulk of EU rules on political, social and economic rights are written into British law after Brexit. Sponsors of the cross-party amendment included former Conservative Cabinet minister John Gummer.

“This bill should not be used to reduce the legal rights we all enjoy against the state,” said David Pannick, a barrister who sits as a non-aligned lawmaker in the House of Lords. The government’s proposed legislation is “simply a recipe for confusion,” and the “exclusion of the Charter of Fundamental Rights from this bill is unprincipled and unjustified,” he said.

The defeat was followed by others for May as a consequence of the first vote as lawmakers refined the wording of the bill. They voted to limit the powers of ministers to challenge EU law and again to retain the right to legal action over any failure to comply with the general principles of EU law.

The votes come after peers last week added two other provisions to May’s bill, one requiring ministers to seek to stay in a customs union with the EU, the other to bring in added protections for workers’ rights, the environment and consumer standards deriving from EU law currently in place. While they still need approval in the House of Commons, the changes add to the difficulties facing May by showing the strength of opposition for her Brexit vision.

Extra Provisions

May’s spokesman, James Slack, earlier told reporters that the government didn’t want peers to insert the extra provisions on rights, without elaborating on the reasons.

“The bill left the House of Commons -- and was voted for in the House of Commons -- with the government’s position set out on the Charter of Fundamental Rights,” he said. “We’d expect that position to be the same in the House of Lords.”

Monday’s session is the second of six in which the Lords will seek to amend May’s bill. Labour’s Brexit spokeswoman in the House of Lords, Dianne Hayter, told Bloomberg last week she could envisage further defeats for the government in other areas, including protecting the peace process in Northern Ireland, facilitating future cooperation with EU agencies and removing the government’s fixed Brexit day of March 29, 2019 to give added flexibility.

It’s the defeat on the customs union that could be the most problematic for May, because there’s probably a majority in the House of Commons in favor of staying in such an agreement with the bloc. But the government has pushed back on that idea, saying that the peers’ amendment only requires it to make a statement about efforts to stay in a customs union.

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.